Ute Riese: Thomas Rentmeister
Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Skulptur 2000”, Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven, 01.10 – 12.11.2000; in Skulptur 2000, (cat.) Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven, Wilhelmshaven 2000, German p. 40–45, English p. 46–51, translated from German by Judith Rosenthal.
Since the early 1990s, Thomas Rentmeister has become known for his organically formed polyester sculptures. Characteristic of these works are their forms – cartoon‑figure‑like in some cases and abstract-minimalist in others – and the perfection of their outward appearance brought about by their highly sensitive, reflective surfaces. ”The essence of my highly polished polyester sculptures is indeed their surface. If it were possible, I would leave out everything else, everything beneath the surface, and the sculptures would lie around in real space like virtual hulls or infinitely thin‑walled soap bubbles. But since that of course isn’t possible, I subject them to intensive manual treatment to try to give them an appearance so hyper‑artificial that it seems out of place in reality. This way, at least there is the illusion of a virtual body. I condition them – as it were – towards virtuality to the extent that reality permits.” [*1) Preparatory conversation with the artist for the catalogue “Reality Bytes”, Kunsthalle Nuremberg, 1999.]
Before the present exhibition, Thomas Rentmeister had already begun to work with an unusual material that was new to his artistic context, as seen at Art Cologne 1999: Hanging on the wall was a plastic work, a small bookcase with two shelves, having been entirely covered with a pastose coating of Nutella nut-nougat cream. This surface gave the work an appearance which contrasted sharply with the artist’s polyester sculptures, which are products of a long and complex working process: Nutella doesn’t dry out when exposed to air, not even after a long time. It maintains its thick, creamy consistency and continues to be affected by temperature and contact, characteristics which the small wall object conveyed to the observant visitor. And closer proximity to the object revealed another, very characteristic attribute: Even after weeks of existence, the work emanated an intensive chocolate aroma.
The exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven provided the artist with his first opportunity to work with this new material on a larger scale. The first version, produced in Wilhelmshaven during the preparatory phase of the exhibition, was “untitled, 2000” (Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven 11.9.2000), and consisted entirely of Nutella – in its usual straight‑from‑the‑jar consistency – spreading out lava‑like across the floor. During the creation process the artist controlled the overall form by adding the cream to the mass on the floor in amounts manageable by hand and ladle. The work’s height was automatically limited by the viscosity and weight of the material, which made working in the horizontal seem the obvious and sensible choice. The surface preserved its amorphous, sluggish, creamy, mass‑like character arrived at by means of a kind of “dripping technique” and not changed after its initial formation.
The second version, on view in the exhibition, has been amassed atop a structure of hard chocolate and modelled upward to reach several mountain‑like peaks. The underlying chocolate core, also a product made by the artist, proves an adequate basis, both with regard to its materiality and because – due to its massiveness and its weight – it attains good adhesion.
One cause for Rentmeister’s adoption of this new working substance was his experience with the reactions of the public to his polyester works. Their smooth and shiny surfaces and curved forms trigger in many visitors the desire to touch them. And many indulge in this pleasure – the act itself is usually clandestine, but leaves visible traces on the surface of the sculpture. Without criticism, but not without humour, the artist turns the situation around. Visitors are permitted to touch the Nutella works. Although the discreet “museum touch” does alter the pastose surface very slightly, its overall character remains unchanged. For the toucher, the act of touching is clearly visible; he has traces of the material on his fingers, a circumstance to which he might well respond with mixed feelings.
With the use of this new material, Rentmeister is addressing a phenomenon particularly relevant to sculpture as opposed to other art forms: Especially in the case of corporeally curving forms and “sensual” surfaces (plastics, wood, plaster, velvety layers of pigment), the perception of the work is accompanied by the strong desire to touch it. This impulse is countered, however, by the special aura of the artwork, fittingly described by Walter Benjamin as the “unique appearance of remoteness, no matter how close it might be.” [*2) Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, 3rd version, 1936–39, in: “Gesammelte Schriften”, Volume 1.2, p. 471–508, here p. 477.]
The work of art wraps itself up in a kind of invisible protective membrane, so that the viewer – at least the sensitised art appreciator – has the feeling that there is something improper about touching it. This ambivalence between “invitation and prohibition” is already present in the cultic beginnings of figurative sculpture, in works by Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp or Yves Klein, for example, works regarded today as modern classics. Rentmeister’s manner of addressing this fundamental issue of sculptural discourse possesses a lapidary comicality: With his Nutella works, he shoves the element of aura – which, particularly in the museum exhibition space, is apparently producible regardless of the value of the material – into the observer’s field of vision. Here the aspect of touchability does not implicate the participation of the visitor in the production process and is not the primary focus of the work’s conception. The Nutella works do not directly encourage the exhibition visitor to reshape or consume them (as was the case with Felix Gonzales‑Torres’s mound of candy) but serve instead to intensify his perception of the already existing aural character of Rentmeister’s sculpture.
A further aspect of the Wilhelmshaven work, likewise a basic theme of sculpture in general, can be perceived in the emphasis placed on the fundamental plastic gesture of modelling, here again with an undertone of irony and humour. The act of modelling a form from a soft substance evokes a demiurgical vision of the primal creative act, further underscored by the fact that the chosen material does not harden but remains elastic and mouldable. Yet while the Nutella works are pastose, massively adherent to the floor, and produced with an archaic gesture, they employ a perfectly “designed” modern food that already possesses cult status. Rentmeister consciously incorporates this status and makes use of its appeal. Already the mere name of the product calls forth a number of associations with subjects like childhood, consolation, happiness and sensuality, as well as a form of incidental “everyday creativity” experienced in spreading chocolate cream onto a bread‑roll half. Within the tradition of the numerous chocolate artworks brought forth by artists of the twentieth century (e.g. Beuys, Dieter Roth), the chocolate sculptures by Rentmeister are funny in their unification of the archaic with perfect food design, in their sculptural form and in their eccentricity. The autonomous sculpture appears here in its aural character, in its material‑oriented presence, and is nevertheless – by virtue of its references to sculptural discourses – very self‑ironical.
In Wilhelmshaven Thomas Rentmeister is also showing an untitled metal sculpture of 1999. Whereas Rentmeister has worked extensively with polyester, this is his only metal work to date. The sculpture consists of an angular, irregularly formed body lying on the floor; an extension on one side reaches far out into the surrounding space. In its proportions, the overall form is conceived in such a way that the visitor looks down upon it from above or, alternatively, is inspired to bend down and examine the various edges and bevelled surfaces more closely. The work is somewhat reminiscent of a Cubist cello case. The edges and the manner in which they produce a conglomeration of different‑angled surfaces exhibit no system, no regularity; It is a form individually composed by the artist, without reference to any apparent functional context. Although in striking contrast to the early plastic works the hollow overall form possesses no curves whatsoever, there are similarities to earlier works in the reduced, closed form and the strangely associative overall appearance. The sculpture is entirely encased in a monochrome coat of dark brown paint and exhibits a weightiness and bulkiness much different from the “infinitely thin‑walled soap bubbles”. It evokes associations with functional objects (a case) or – because of the long “neck” stretching upward as from a massive, sprawling body – with something animal‑like. One might be reminded of an amphibian, lying on the floor and looking up at the visitors. The dark brown coating, however, is more reserved, more cumbersome, less decorative and less agreeable than the colour of the polyester surfaces.
Within the context of Rentmeister’s artistic development, the metal sculpture represents a means of departure from the polyester sculpture groups and an important step in his artistic confrontation with the traditions of the lone‑standing, autonomous sculpture. In the attempt to find a structure, a system, some form of regularity, one feels tempted to take recourse to the minimalist art of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly its concern with elementary forms, work‑implicit structures and autonomy. Nevertheless, like all of Rentmeister’s works, the metal sculpture counteracts every minimalist System that might be deciphered in aspects such as rational proportions or certain methods of using the material. On the other hand, pictorial ideas – ideas corresponding to a more traditional understanding of sculpture – are brought into play, alluding to the form’s essence and to figurative associations. Yet both levels are strangely broken, and their jagged edges interlock in an unusual pattern, flavoured once again with humour and an ironical treatment of Sculptural discourses. What all of the works have in common is their consistent avoidance of anything rhetorical – another indication of the artist’s confrontation with the tradition of abstract autonomous sculpture.
The same is true of the third sculpture by Thomas Rentmeister included in the exhibition, a glaringly yellow polyester wall piece “untitled, 2000”. The new yellow work marks a counterpole to the Nutella work. It is a rigid synthetic form whose homogeneous surface covers every trace of its complex production process. On the floor lies the heaped‑up chocolate landscape, quite strongly emphasising the process‑oriented nature of its formation and the sensual qualities of the material. The floor work claims to be the “more essential” and, by means of the correspondence of form and material, brings the idea of “authenticity” into play. Yet despite is archaic-like gesture it remains just as “artificial” as the plastic form on the wall, which ironically seems to illustrate processes of movement and gestural treatment of the material. The visitor in search of meaning is merely encouraged to reflect further on the discourses alluded to in the works. In any case, the works of Thomas Rentmeister radiate great sensual presence, humorous charm and a self‑contained sense of calm.
© Ute Riese